Sherpas face uncertain future after Mount Everest avalanche

This is usually the most lucrative season for Sherpas, who can earn up to $7,000 during the three-month climbing season

Elia Saikaly/

Elia Saikaly/

SEATTLE – Mount Everest is normally buzzing with activity this time of year, with hundreds of hopeful climbers gathering at base camp to attempt to summit the world’s tallest peak during a narrow 10-day window in May before the monsoons arrive.

It is also the most lucrative season for Sherpas, the locals living in the high-altitude regions of the Himalaya who support climbing teams as porters, guides, rope-fixers, cooks and dish-washers.

But Everest is basically closed after a magnitude-7.8 quake triggered a massive avalanche that killed 19 at basecamp and more than 5,800 people throughout the country. China said Wednesday it was ending the climbing season early on the Tibet side, and most major mountaineering companies on the Nepal side cancelled their climbs because of logistical challenges and safety concerns.

That leaves Sherpas, who can earn up to $5,000 to $7,000, plus bonuses and tips, during the three-month climbing season, wondering how they’ll make up that lost revenue in a country where the per capita income is about $730 annually. Cooks and other support personnel earn about half as much, but still well above the average pay in the country.

Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, an umbrella body of mountaineering agencies and climbers in Nepal, said Sherpas are worried the season may be over. While many Sherpas sign contracts that will still have to be paid, they’ll miss out on day rates and bonuses.

Steve Mock, director a climbing school for Nepali called the Khumbu Climbing Center, said the lower incomes also mean Sherpas now have less money to rebuild their homes.

“Insurance for that sort of thing is simply not available in Nepal so rebuilding costs come directly out of pocket,” he said. “Many save up money from working on Everest for years in order to build a decent house that may well have been destroyed or at least damaged by the quake. So financially, this is simply devastating.”

The financial burden could spread beyond just the Sherpas. Everest is a major economic driver for the country, which receives more than $3.5 million from Everest climbing permits annually, said Conrad Anker of Bozeman, Montana, who has climbed Everest three times.

Climbing permits run about $11,000 per person for climbing Everest from the Nepal side and $7,000 per person on the Tibet side, and hundreds are sold each year.

The climbing season runs from March to June.

A few teams are trying to find a way to salvage the season, and some Sherpas would welcome the work.

Kapindra Rai of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, which is in charge of the route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall on the Nepal side, said staff descended from base camp because two of their cooks were injured, they lost their equipment and many wanted to be with their families.

But they were ready to return if any expedition asks, Rai said.

Adrian Ballinger, a guide with the California-based Alpenglow Expeditions, said although his Everest team had to call off their summit bid on the Tibet side, they are still paying their 12 Nepali Sherpas.

“We are paying full wages minus summit bonuses, and a separate fund for home rebuilding,” he said in a text message Thursday. “We recognize this is their sole income.”

Others in the international climbing community are raising funds to support the communities.

The Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International team is working its way back to Kathmandu and then home but they are leaving their climbing supplies behind for earthquake victims, said Gordon Janow.

The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, based in Bozeman, Montana, said on its website that it is accepting donations to be given to climbing communities of Nepal. The American Himalayan Foundation is also collecting donations for earthquake support.

The quake has once again raised questions about whether the mountain, with a storied history of dramatic accidents and high death rates, can be climbed safely. The catastrophe came almost a year after a block of ice triggered an avalanche that struck the Khumbu Icefall just above base camp on April 18, 2014, killing 16 Sherpas.

“The bigger question is, what are people’s perspectives of the mountain going to be now? Are people going to want to climb Everest?” asked Peter Athans, a Washington state climber who has been on 14 Everest expeditions.

“The future is very uncertain.”

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